January 14, 2007

Is Music Art? (Part One)

“Everybody thought they’re listening to anti-art when they’re listening to [John] Cage. They don’t know that the reason they’re annoyed is that it’s art."

-- Composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) to Peter Gena in a 1982 interview, Morton Feldman Says : Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987, London: Hyphen, 2006, p.124).

Lizzy the Librarian forwarded to me a couple of interesting articles that reflect upon a topic I have been trying to write about, that is the problem of modern “classical” music (and modern “jazz” for that matter), its vanishingly small audience (at least in the USA), and this music’s relationship to the so-called fine arts.

Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box wrote a thoughtful essay wherein he observed how a recent MOMA retrospective of the relatively obscure, modernist (read “difficult”) painter Brice Marden drew huge crowds, while modernist music remains largely unheard in the concert halls, even in New York City. Oteri speculates on some of the reasons why the culture at large can accept the challenges of modern art in the museum, but will vehemently reject such challenges in music. He raises some essential issues and while the lively discussion that follows sometimes generates more heat than light, it is nonetheless a thought provoking read.

On the other hand, here is an example of a successful new music series in LA that has somehow managed to fill Frank Gehry’s (ultra-modernist) Disney Hall with an enthusiastic audience for concerts devoted to important contemporary composers.

Morton Feldman asked himself the question of whether or not music could be an art form and it is a serious question. Feldman’s tentative conclusion was that there are no art forms in music, only music forms - and this creates problems for the artist whose chosen medium is music.

This is a topic I hope to explore further.


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